Monday, January 31, 2011

"Leading in the VUCA Environment"

I know many of you in the wildland fire service cringe when we benchmark the military, but there are great lessons to be learned from organizations and institutions that parallel our own. Therefore, this entry focuses on a four-part series that I have been following on the Harvard Business Review blog since November 2010. Col. Eric G. Kail, commissioned artillery officer in the U.S. Army and current course director for military leadership at West Point, shares leadership lessons from the military in a piece he titles “Leading in a VUCA Environment. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

I highly suggest that wildland fire leaders read his short posts as well as Karl Weick's article Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster. Here are a few highlights from Col. Kail's posts and his tips for leading more effectively.

Every wildland fire leader faces “a state of dynamic instability brought about by drastic, violent, and rapid shifts.” These events that develop in and around the fire ground, require our immediate attention and can “leave us feeling overwhelmed, alone, and utterly unprepared to lead effectively.”

Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Ask your team to translate data into information.
  • Communicate clearly.
  • Ensure your intent is understood.
Uncertainty occurs when “a lack of clarity hinders our ability to conceptualize the threats and challenges facing the organizations we lead.” Very similar to ambiguity, but Col. Kail looks at uncertainty from an understanding that “You simply have to be here and see it to understand what’s going on right now.” He warns of “an over-reliance on what we’ve witnessed before” when addressing an existing situation.

When assisting in the development of the 2003 Annual Fireline Safety Refresher product, I was introduced to the concept of vu jade which is “the strange feeling that an experience has never happened before.”* If you participate in our Professional Reading Program, you recall this concept as presented by Dr. Karl Weick in "Collapse of Sensemaking in Organizations: The Mann Gulch Disaster."
Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Get a fresh perspective.
  • Be flexible.
  • Glance back, look ahead.
Wildland fire leaders should become adept at creating interactive teams that come together to address the entire fire picture and not just that within their limited span of control. Understanding how action affects another is critical, especially as the complexity of the fire increases.

Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Develop collaborative leaders.
  • Stop seeking permanent solutions.
  • Train tomorrow’s heroes now.
Col. Kail distinguishes ambiguity from uncertainty by saying that “ambiguity leads primarily to inefficiency and missed opportunities.” Symptoms of ambiguity include:
  • The inability to accurately conceptualize threats and opportunities before they become lethal.
  • Increasing frustration that compartmentalized accomplishments don’t add up to comprehensive or enduring success.
Col. Kail’s words of wisdom:
  • Listen well.
  • Think divergently.
  • Set up incremental dividends.

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